Luke Clifton makes deliveries for the PDX Concierge service on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020 in Salem, Oregon. The delivery service is volunteer-based and began in Portland in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Salem Statesman Journal
For teens and young adults like Kano Robinson, Youth Era has been a lifeline when he most needed it.
Robinson, 25, connected with the Salem chapter of the nonprofit two years ago when he was homeless and living at a youth transitional shelter. Since, he’s attended peer support groups, built relationships within the community, obtained a job and secured his own apartment.
But Youth Era’s connection with Robinson and others like him doesn’t stop there.
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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit has delivered roughly 300 kits containing food, hygiene products and art supplies throughout the Salem area.
Organizers make deliveries three times a week, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. They also open The Salem Drop location downtown twice a week for pickups.
“They don’t ask any questions besides ‘OK. Where do you live?’ and ‘This is the day I’m gonna drop it off,’ ” Robinson said. “That’s it. It’s really great.”
‘It’s OK that you need help’
Kano Robinson, left, picks up food kits distributed by Alberto Maldonado, Salem Drop program manager, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. (Photo: BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
Youth Era serves youth throughout Oregon with wraparound programs, as well as at drop-in centers in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Coos Bay and Medford. Nationwide, they provide technical assistance and training, as well as crisis response.
Salem’s operation works with individuals ages 14 to 25 in Marion and Polk counties.
Participating youth work with peer support specialists who share similar life experiences, including mental health challenges, addiction and recovery, homelessness, foster care and juvenile justice, organizers said.
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And while homelessness is not a requirement to get help, organizers know there is a large need.
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated in January 2019 there were about 1,590 unaccompanied young adults, aged 18-24, experiencing homelessness on any given day in Oregon.
In 2017-18, the number of Oregon public school students experiencing homelessness declined for the first time in years after reaching an all-time high. The decrease gave many hope things were finally changing.
But according to the 2018-19 Homeless Student Count, 22,215 students in Oregon lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” at some point that year, representing a 2% increase over the year prior.
The need for resources is only heightened during the pandemic when traditional safety nets may not be in place, jobs and housing are harder to come by and individuals struggling with homelessness are often at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Alberto Maldonado, program manager for The Salem Drop, said it costs $3 or $4 to make each kit. So far, he estimated they’ve spent about $1,200, with some of the materials donated.
As a nonprofit, Youth Era’s funding comes from different grants, donations and state funding. Staff members have worked with probation officers and local school counselors to distribute kits and establish connections for future work with teens and young adults not yet familiar with Youth Era.
The exterior of the Salem Drop in downtown Salem on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. The Youth Era program used to offer youth experiencing homelessness or hardship a place to use computers or eat. With COVID-19 concerns, the program now delivers food, hygiene and art supplies. (Photo: BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
Robinson said it’s important youth in need speak up and look for services.
“Surround yourself with positive people who are moving forward … and admit to yourself it’s OK that you need help,” Robinson said. “That’s when you’ll see change — when you change yourself.”
‘Nice to know that someone cares’
Katelyn Putnam, 19, is a senior in Salem-Keizer Public Schools. She’s experienced homelessness on and off for a few years. She and her fiancé are currently living with friends. They receive resources and help with food and hygiene kits from The Salem Drop often.
“It is nice to know that someone cares and is always asking about how I am mentally,” she said, adding the art kits help her distress.
Before COVID-19, Putnam said she was at The Salem Drop almost every day — hanging out, eating nachos, playing pool or watching a movie. Now, she has a job. But in her free time, she paints, spends time with family and works to help others.
One of her favorite memories is of going out into the community with a group from The Salem Drop. They handed out care packages with water, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, snacks and toys to people downtown.
“The looks on the faces of those who received a gift with a smile and no judgment were so grateful,” she said.
Putnam described medical conditions that take a toll. She’s also in school online, which has been “different.” But the biggest barrier for her during the pandemic has been finding shelter.
“Life is hard at times, but I am thankful for what I have and the support network I have found,” she said.
Putnam said the Youth Era community is never judgmental, and it’s nice for her to know she isn’t going to go hungry.
Art and school supplies are laid out to be put into kits at The Salem Drop in Salem, Oregon on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. (Photo: BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
“The staff goes out of their way to make me feel like I am special,” she said. “When I was looking for a job, I was able to work at The Youth Development Cafe in the Drop to earn a food handlers card, work on my resume and fill out applications.
“They even helped me get slip-proof shoes once I got the job.”
Putnam wants people to understand that individuals experiencing homelessness deserve respect and love like everyone else. “I want people to know that there is still hope for the dreams of those less fortunate,” she said.
She wants to become a nurse or caregiver one day, so she can help others, “even though right now, I can barely help myself sometimes.”
“I still hope,” she said. “I still dream.”
Filling a gap in services
Youth Era’s COVID-19 kits not only help youth meet basic needs, but organizers said they provide an opportunity to connect in a time of isolation.
With the pandemic forcing the closure of social safety nets like schools and nonprofits, many youths have lost access to programs that helped them meet basic needs, organizers said, as well as connections to caring adults who can help them reach their goals.
While delivering food, Maldonado often finds out more about their situations and ways the nonprofit can help, including social support, writing resumes and cover letters and practicing interview questions.
J Scire, 18, used to live in foster care, but now lives in a homeless youth transition shelter. He said his experiences with Youth Era have helped ease his social anxieties.
“I’ve been setting my eyes forward, which is something I’d never have had the hope or trust in myself to do if not for Alberto and the Drop,” he said.
In addition to scarce employment opportunities, Scire experienced first-hand how packed housing facilities are. He had to apply five times before he was able to get into the shelter he’s in now.
“A lot of people are homeless, not because they’re trying to be or they did anything irresponsible, but because some people are just losing housing because of COVID,” he said. “Real estate owners are evicting tenants and jobs are really hard to come by.”
How to help, get help
Those looking to help can schedule a time to drop off food or hygiene products by contacting program manager Maldonado at [email protected] or 458-210-8641.
Youth ages 14 to 25 living in the Salem area and experiencing food insecurity can also contact Maldanado.
Other organizations with resources for children, teens and young adults experiencing homelessness in the area include NW Human Services, HOME Youth Services, Salem-Keizer Public Schools and Marion Polk Food Share.
Here are supplies Youth Era is requesting.
Pop-top canned food:
- Pasta: Ravioli, spaghetti.
- Cooked meats: chicken, tuna.
- Mac and cheese.
- Pizza pockets.
- Breakfast/granola bars.
- Cereal, granola.
- Sandwich ingredients.
- Face masks.
- Hand sanitizer.
- Hand soap.
- Shaving cream.
- Toilet paper.
- Menstrual products like tampons.
- Women’s underwear.
Learn more at www.youthera.org.
Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at [email protected], 503-399-6745, Twitter @Nataliempate or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.
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